Luis and Leona Rodriguez, owners of The Station
Photo by Melissa Ponder

The People-Powered Coffee House

By Jacob Uitti | Photography by Melissa Ponder

Luis and Leona Rodriguez met at Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School. Strolling through the hallway one afternoon, Leona, carrying a life-like baby doll for her childhood psychology class, encountered her husband-to-be. “Is that your baby?” Luis asked, smirking. “You want to be the dad?” Leona joked right back.

Some 20-plus years later, the couple operates The Station, one of Seattle’s most popular independent coffee shops, in the heart of their longtime neighborhood of Beacon Hill. The baristas—African American, transgender—whip spicy Mexican mochas from behind the counter while Kendrick Lamar or old-school Big Daddy Kane plays on the speakers.

Opened in 2010, The Station welcomes people of all backgrounds—the parent with a baby, the campaign organizer, the musician planning the annual Block Party. The Block Party, in fact, has vaulted The Station’s reputation as an unrivaled community meeting place. Receiving no corporate sponsorship, the Block Party is a free music festival that celebrates artists of color. Each summer, hundreds crowd outside The Station to admire some 30 different musical acts, many of which might not otherwise perform on a main stage.

The couple, who are raising sons, Mauricio (13) and Leonardo (10), recently upgraded their digs, moving The Station from a small, worn building to a brighter place, twice the size, just across the street. The Station now occupies a first floor storefront in the new Plaza Roberto Maestas building, which is significant, Luis Rodriguez says: “We are in a non-gentrified building with a lot of our P-O-C (people of color) friends.”

The Station Coffeehouse
Photo by Melissa Ponder

Why did you open a café?

Luis: Love of coffee. I grew up drinking coffee. My father and my mother used to give us café Mexicano or café con leche. (Luis was born and raised in Baja, but he’s lived in Seattle for much of his life).

Leona: To be my own boss, which also works well for Luis. When we first opened The Station, I didn’t work there for about three years. I had a corporate job. We have two kids so I stayed there to make sure this was established and then I quit and came on full-time.

When you opened, who was your intended customer?

Luis: Definitely P-O-C folks. I wanted to give back to my community and open a coffee shop that belonged to us.

Leona: I wanted everybody to come. I knew from the get-go it was going to be different from any other coffee shop. Luis opening a coffee shop was not going to be a Starbucks-type environment with the phony hellos and writing names on cups. We just already know your name before you come in. We have your coffee ready by the time you go and order it.

Who do you hire?

Luis: The people I want to hire have always been people that don’t get hired anywhere else: transgender people, black women. Those are the people I want to hire because those are our people.

Do you feel successful?

Luis: Yes. Success for me is not money. Success for me is happiness. The fact we have created a place that has hired seven people with families, that is success. (Luis and Leona were staunch proponents of the $15 an hour minimum wage). But I want us to be even more successful. I want to open more businesses so I can hire more people.

What does ‘community’ mean to you?

Luis: Community is not just about a group of people. It’s about building a place for all of us and taking care of each other.

Leona: It’s a vibe, a welcoming space. Everybody’s welcome and everybody’s free to speak their mind. It’s like a big, extended family—not blood-related—but it’s just feeling safe. You know how you go somewhere and you just don’t feel welcome, you don’t feel right? I hope The Station doesn’t feel that way for anybody.

Is Seattle headed in the direction you want for your children?

Luis: I don’t know. It all depends on if the city builds this new youth jail or not. If they build it, then I’ll say no, they’re doing exactly what they want to do, which is incarcerate our black and brown kids. If I see Seattle doing great things for our community, our brown and black folks and our homeless folks and do something with rent control, then I’ll say yes.

When you think about retirement do you think about staying in Seattle?

Luis: It’s a beautiful city. It’s definitely a place where you’d want to raise your kids but only if it stays the way it is or gets even more brown and more queer.

Leona: I’m from here, my family’s from here. And I feel like no one is pushing me out. I’m not about to leave nowhere if I can help it. My grandmother had to sell her (Central District) home of 50 years and we all grew up in that house and that was really devastating. It really pissed me off. It’s beautiful that another family is there, and that’s fine, but it’s just that I have to like, I guess, in protest, stay here forever.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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